Sonja Visits Vietnam
By Sonja Stark
Even though it’s a Communist country, modern-day Vietnam welcomes tourism and capitalism and is flourishing under a blend of ultra-liberal economics and ultra-conservative politics.
Sixty-five percent of Vietnam’s population is under the age of 30 and many are too young to remember or don’t want to remember, how destructive the American War was.
Most of the students onboard the M/V Explorer feel the same way; they’re here to soak up the sights and dine in style.
Navigating the Saigon River
It was safely decided that the M/V Explorer navigate the twisty Saigon River in the daytime rather than at night. With the sun dawning over Vietnam, the ship carefully snakes through deep channels of mangrove trees, coconut groves and squawking birds.
Sharp turns and narrow stretches are no match for the captain. With little or no room for error, he spins the nautical wheel into place with the greatest of ease.
Ho Chi Minh City
Saigon is still the name used by locals but officially it’s called Ho Chi Minh City and the name evokes stories of ambushes, artillery storms, and ‘Uncle Ho.’ After we dock and look around, I realize that that too is all ancient history.
Tree-lined promenades, well-paved roads, and constant smiles pose no danger. The only act that comes close to losing a limb is crossing the streets here. There are no crosswalks, and with a never-ending stream of 5 million scooters in a city of 4.5 million, it’s like crossing the old 17th Parallel.
My advice: don’t fight the undertow; build a human life raft instead. Students and I knot our arms and hands together tightly and push off from the curb.
There are bikes, cars and buses coming from all directions. They weave in and around us as if we’re driftwood on a raging torrent. Horns are beeping, ignition fuel sprays our pants and sometimes traffic gets so close it skims our noses. But we make it to the other side.
I’m carting Beta-Betty for shooting, a tripod that resembles an uzi and suntan lotion as camouflage cover. Our guide walks us through busy District 1, Tu-Do Street to be exact, now known as Dong Khoi. It’s in the commercial hub of a city that is nostalgically reminisced about.
This used to be the red-light district, and massage parlors still operate like legal brothels here; they’ll gladly render services not on the menu. They try luring me into their den of iniquity, but, I learned my lesson well in India.
A Miracle, Maybe
Today, there are temples, churches, markets, and museums dedicated to the struggle for a unified Vietnam. First, we visit Notre Dame Cathedral, a landmark cathedral surrounded by a small square with a large statue of the Virgin Mary.
There are hundreds of devout Catholics holding vigil at the base of the Blessed Lady – all praying, singing, and weeping.
Just a couple of weeks before they claim a miracle occurred here. A ‘teardrop’ fell from the statue’s left eye trailing down her cheek and off her chin. Sure enough, a long white jagged stain marks where the tear was shed.
At first, the phenomenon causes traffic to come to a standstill but then days later experts report the statue is prone to rain stains so the mark is probably nothing noteworthy. Either way, I’m thrilled to find contemplative Vietnamese children singing beautiful Christian hymns here.
I’m a bit unnerved when my tour guide says there’s no time for the War Crimes Museum, Reunification Palace or Presidential Palace. These are the places I really want to see but instead, we end up at a dark and dreary Buddhist Pagoda. It doesn’t have the classic seven-story tower nor the golden stupas and because I’m a bit spoiled having just left Burma, my mood turns nasty.
Buddha’s Holy Army
First I leave Beta-Betty behind because “I don’t want to waste footage on an eyesore.” Second, I poke fun at a kitchy string of lights wrapped around a Buddhist deity. And third, I refuse to take my shoes off when entering the sacred grounds. Bad, bad, bad idea.
Within minutes, Buddha retaliates and sends in a band of big fat marching red ants to silence my sarcasm. They’re a hungry bunch too and nip at my legs, arms, and chest.
Buddha’s Army of Ants
I scream in panic and whip my fanny pack off my waist and tear open my shirt. Right there, in the middle of everyone, I’m having what looks like a half-naked seizure, trying to defend myself against Buddha’s holy army.
My friends rescue me from Vietnamese voyeurism by wrapping long scarfs around my upperparts, while I plead for mercy. It’s an amusing little sidebar for several who point, laugh, and take photos of my misery, none of which will I be posting here!
Tending the Fields
Passing paddy fields, peasants and poor villages, our bus is on its way to Ben Duoc Tunnel, part of 200 miles of Cu Chi tunnel network. It’s difficult to get a decent photo from the bus window, so I ask my driver to pull over for shots of the second largest exporter of rice worldwide.
Several small women are tending the fields. They strap themselves to the back of a crude plow pulled by domesticated water buffalo. The huge black animals dwarf tiny women. Towels and conical hats hide their faces because pale skin is considered more beautiful than tanned faces.
Pulling rice all day in the hot sun and carrying the load in baskets atop their heads makes for great footage but it’s obviously backbreaking work. They work in a monsoonal climate, typified by high precipitation, humidity and temperatures.
I notice graves and markers where laborers enshrine each other when they die. Vietnamese often pray to their ancestors for guidance and it’s both tradition and a lack of money that families bury one another on their land.
An hour later, I jump from air-conditioned comforts into a scorching soup bowl. In the distance, I hear gunfire and ammunition rounds going off from an actual AK-47 shooting range. A man in green fatigues shows us around and pledges that this place is a peaceful reminder of the past.
We come across a hole in the ground no bigger than half the size of a manhole cover. Our tour guide slips undetected into a tunnel and replaces the opening with a leaf-covered lid. He’s gone, out of sight, completely invisible to us.
The tour guide pops up and out of the ground and then shows us a crypt-like tunnel widened to accommodate curious tourists.
We duck in, knee-bent, following each other’s legs and backsides through a sweaty oven-hot tunnel. Interconnecting rooms on different levels were used to accommodate a kitchen, a well, sleeping quarters and a hospital but, for whatever reason, these areas are closed off from viewing.
The ventilation air ducts are working but my breathing becomes heavy. It’s tough towing yourself through these tunnels let alone humping a 30-pound camera on your back.
Pits with sharp-toothed bamboo and punji stakes and booby-traps like spiked mud balls, bear traps and landmines are on display. Some bamboo spikes were even dipped in poisonous excrement to inflict greater wounds, explains our tour guide.
The physical damage and psychological panic that soldiers experienced here and the sheer horror of the human imagination, is definitely a ‘must-see’, but, on the other hand, a designated shooting range and children crawling all over a shelled-out American tank disturbs me. I abandon the rest of the tour.
Several new religious movements emerged in Vietnam during the twentieth century. One of the most captivating is a small and colorful group called Cao Dai.
It evolved in 1926 as a result of French Indochina destroying intellectual traditions of the East Asian culture. Part Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Judaism, Confucianism, Christianity, and Islam, Cao Dai followers gather together four times a day to pray and sing for spiritual unity.
It’s noontime at the main temple, or Great Divine Temple, in a city called Tay Ninh. They open the doors to tourism for a 20-minute sneak preview of their ceremonies. It’s hard for me to know what to make of this Disney-like dressed denomination.
Muslim-style turrets cohabit alongside Chinese pagodas woven together with mosque-like marble tile floors. The psychedelic colors of the costumes worn by the worshippers are a feast for the eyes but their hypnotic chanting has all the markings of a mystical cult. I leave the place a little unsure of what I just witnessed.
A World of Water
Fifteen million people live in the tropical marshlands of the Mekong Delta. It’s a world of water with irrigation channels, tributaries and narrow inlets. Our itinerary includes travel by ferry, bus, rowboat, and canoe to get to our stilt-cottage homestay.
At the ferry crossing, I’m shocked by how the locals transport their livestock. Goats on their way to slaughter are strapped upside down against the side of a hot motorbike. They let out an ear-piercing cry and most of the students look away in disgust.
Next, we jump aboard a small powerboat to navigate the islands. The engine quits twice and the driver dives in headfirst to salvage the mechanics. It’s filthy, cold water, and the current is so strong that our guide comes close to losing his head on a buoy that smashes against the side of the boat. Secretly, I’m praying this has nothing to do with the bad luck that Buddha brought me the day before.
Once up and running again, we stop at an island to dine on fresh fruit, snake wine and elephant fish. Rambutans are sweet sticky fruit with a red spiny skin and they taste wonderful with a snake wine elixir.
Hundreds of dead snakes coiled up in a vat of rice wine have been fermenting for up to nine months.
It takes a brave soldier to taste a yellow shot of this bloody mixture but thankfully, it tastes better than it looks. They claim it has aphrodisiac-like qualities but all attractions are lost when I see a Vietnamese crack open a duck egg and swallow a raw living embryo, beak, and all.
Next up, elephant fish and phu pho. Elephant fish doesn’t resemble an elephant at all so I’m not sure how it got its name. It’s a bony fish, fried whole then served standing propped up between two chopsticks.
We’re instructed to peel off its sides and roll the meat in a piece of rice paper with added cucumber slices, mint and basil leaves. We dip the wrap in spicy chili sauce and devour it whole. It’s absolutely delicious but there’s not nearly enough to fill my empty stomach.
Vietnamese noodle soup or phu pho is an Asian-style broth filled with delicate rice noodles, fresh snow peas, shiitake mushrooms, and pungent herbs. It satisfies the rest of my cravings and then it’s off to the Mekong River’s floating markets or Cuu Long in Vietnamese.
A Floating Supermarket
On the boat, we anchor for an hour and watch hundreds of little canoe-shaped crafts piled high, dangerously close to sinking, trading goods on the Cai Rang delta.
The Phung Hiep floating market is the biggest in Vietnam but Cai Rang is a photographer’s delight as well. Hundreds of motorized craft with steering wheels at the helm dock against each other trading goods.
This is the life-blood of southern Vietnam and commerce and traditional trading has thrived for centuries.
Long bamboo poles are attached to the roof of the boat with examples of what the merchant is selling. A head of lettuce, an article of clothing, an empty can of pop, it’s a high-flying grocery clothesline that can be seen for miles. A couple of boats with fresh pineapple drinks pull up alongside us and show the students how to peel the exotic fruit.
At night we hunker down in our floating hotel on stilts. It’s positioned on a busy narrow stretch of the Mekong and fish-pole motorboats traverse it throughout the night.
Shooting Stars in a Crystal Night
Between the noisy boats, croaking bullfrogs and miserable heat, I’m hours away from sleep. Our beds are dressed with blue insect nets to stop the mosquitoes from biting but I’m taking malaria medication, so I risk sleeping under the stars in a hammock.
Shooting stars in a crystal clear night segue into an early morning fog that blankets the river like a painting. The dirty Mekong is no place to swim but the students make it their private bathing hole. Minutes later a heavy monsoon shower drenches the rest of us.
With the last sound of the horn, everyone jumps aboard the M/V Explorer, back down the Saigon, excited about further adventures in Hong Kong, Beijing, Japan, and Hawaii, soon to come!
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